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''Love Cruise''

”Love Cruise” — We look at Fox’s romantic reality show

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”Love Cruise”

It doesn’t take long for a signature moment to arise on Fox’s upcoming reality vehicle, Love Cruise. Aboard the SS Mandalay, mere minutes after casting off from St. George’s, Grenada, it’s time for the first coupling of the Cruise‘s 16 singles. The eight women wait in an expectant clutch while eight men stand across the main deck in a semicircle. At the signal from host Justin Gunn, the ladies stride over to claim the male of their choice for the journey’s first two days of companionship.

When the dust settles, a pair of forlorn-looking dudes are left twisting in the wind, unchosen (while two of their hunkier peers balance a babe on each arm). A faint groan escapes from the crew of Bunim-Murray Productions, the verit´ioneers behind MTV’s The Real World and Road Rules. After an uncomfortable silence, producer Kathy Wetherell looks over her shoulder at head honcho Jonathan Murray and cracks, ”This is great TV… if you’re a whore.” A few seconds later, she shakes her head, shrugging, ”I’m going to hell.”

Oh, sure, but if the ability to provoke a healthy sense of sadistic, voyeuristic glee is crucial to any successful reality show (and it is), Love Cruise could be poised to take the form to mortifying new heights — or lows. A brainstorm of Fox Television Entertainment chairman Sandy Grushow (who had the idea last summer during a shipboard vacation with his wife), the seven-week series debuting early next year marries the winner-take-all gamesmanship of Survivor to the agonized mating dances of Blind Date by pitting seafaring singles against each other in the pursuit of true love — and a massive wad of cash. ”It looks good, it feels good,” says Mike Darnell, Fox’s executive VP of alternative and special programming. ”I think it’s an interesting place to take the genre. [We] had fascinating material to work with, and things did happen on the boat. Lots and lots of things.”

The rules are straight out of Reality Show 101: Every two days en route to the Mandalay’s final destination in Aruba, the cast members pair off, sharing their partners’ company — and the same cabin — for 48 hours in the hope of making a love connection. Meanwhile, the duos compete in a series of quizzes, contests, and demonstrations designed to identify the most simpatico hookup. Every episode they jettison two of their outplayed, unpopular, or just plain irritating peers — the men voting off one of the women, and vice versa. Ultimately, a lone cuddly couple are left on deck, winning the grand prize — $100,000 each and a trip around the world together.

”It was like Melrose Place on the sea,” says Toni (Bunim-Murray prefers to keep their contestants on a first-name basis with the outside world), a 27-year-old cast member and bartender from Chicago, two months after the production wrapped. ”There was drama, there was love, there was everything.” Coexecutive producer Bruce Toms has another analogy: ”It’s high school. You know, choosing a partner and being rejected — it’s a very prom kind of thing.”

As with high school, no one escaped unscathed. ”Very few people get the opportunity to be rejected by eight women in the space of five minutes on national TV,” says Michael, a 30-year-old Windy City lawyer, recalling his experience as one of the aforementioned forlorn bachelors. (The sad sacks ultimately did find companions, as the doubly chosen he-men had to give up one of their admirers.) ”I’m used to that on a one-on-one basis in the bar, where you go back to your table and your friends make fun of you. But this is a whole new level of exposure.”

And how. Whether it was bare midriffs, bulging pecs, or late-night soul baring, self-expression was rife in the high-fiving, booze-addled atmosphere on the Mandalay. ”I love this cast,” beams Murray, during a break on the ship’s main deck. ”I mean, they’ve been together less than six hours and we’ve got people all over each other, hugging, and we’ve had people kiss already.” Though press were allowed on board for only the first two days (and then only incognito in crew uniforms), this intrepid observer couldn’t help but overhear a barrage of salty talk, like the following exchange: She: ”Hey, are you going to grab my t-t again?” He: ”If you put it in my hand…” Man overboard!

Of course, a handful of provocative hype surely wouldn’t hurt Fox, which, after first popularizing reality TV with everything from COPS to When Good Pets Go Bad, has yet to reap a Survivor-size payoff from the genre, instead suffering a very public embarrassment from last spring’s wedding-pageant fiasco Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?

Not surprisingly, Fox took a boatload of precautions for Love Cruise, mandating complete medical and psychological workups for the cast, and retaining the firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers to oversee background checks. Plus, a psychologist was installed at ”Loser Island” — a.k.a. Aruba — where evictees were flown to cool their heels and await the winning couple. ”We enter into these new [shows] with that outside counsel helping us through,” says Darnell of the exhaustive screening process for reality series. ”But even after Multi-Millionaire, Survivor had issues, Big Brother had issues. So obviously it’s a very difficult thing to accomplish.”

Still, no amount of preparation could keep the buff and bikini-clad sailors from occasionally abandoning good sportsmanship while at sea. ”I prepared myself by reading Lord of the Flies, and I think I had a very [William] Golding-esque experience,” says Anthony, a 27-year-old aspiring screenwriter from L.A. ”I mean, I walked onto the boat carrying a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and I’m a writer, and I’m like, ‘Hey, I just want to watch.’ I think that made me suspect.” Toni, a recent breast implant recipient, agrees: ”It got nasty. I got stereotyped right away as the blond bimbo with the fake boobs. And I’m not.” The cast, adds Toni, was ”backstabbing left and right. You would never see it because everyone was nice to your face. But when they went back to their cabins, they got evil.”

It wasn’t all ugliness back in those cabins — which, like much of the Mandalay, were wired for sight and sound. ”I was shocked to see the way that everyone floated from one person to another,” says Michael. ”Someone might be making out with someone on day one, and on day three they’re having sex with someone else. There was quite a relay race going on.” (Not that Cruise will be X-rated; cast members wishing to get hot and heavy had the option of turning off the cameras… but not the mics.) Anthony, meanwhile, offers a philosophical take on the bunk hopping: ”We all do silly things. Put 16 people on a boat, fill them with alcohol, and put a camera on. I mean, come on.” Nevertheless, he adds, ”I would have thought it difficult for even some of the not-so-nice girls I’ve known to go on national TV and start having sex with people. But, you know, it happens.” Sure it does, Love Cruisers. See you in hell.